Paul Greenberg

But the strangest part of the protest was provided by the courageous soul who said she'd talk only Off the Record. That's right: She was taking part in a news conference to speak off the record. There's something charming, or at least mystifying, about that concept. It's one of those prize non sequiturs you want to save for your collection. It sounds like something Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel might have said in public when they chose not to say anything in public.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this whole foofaraw here in Little Rock is that it's not really about education at all, or something good might come out of it. It's not even really about race. That's just a card to play.

It's all about power. And the pay and perks that go with it. That's what happens when a school superintendent sets out to reform the system and gets crosswise with the teachers' union.

The superintendent's crime? He's been trying to trim a bloated bureaucracy and shift the emphasis to achievement in the classroom, which means trying to raise test scores and even introducing merit-pay programs to reward the best teachers. Unforgivable.

Why? To quote Katherine Mitchell, the president of the school board: "African American employees have lost $918,000."

Yep, that's really what it's all about: political patronage.

After last fall's school elections, her faction won a fourth seat on the seven-member school board, and is determined to make the most of its one-vote majority. No matter the cost to the district, the city or the community.

If there's a real villain here, it's the lack of public interest in school affairs. The result is the kind of low voter turnout that lets a small, well-organized special interest seize control of a local school board. Now all of us here in Little Rock are paying for it.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.